This is a big week for Denzel Washington. On Christmas Day, he has two movies opening. One he stars in, playing the title role in “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” The other he directed, “A Journal for Jordan.” It’s his first feature since “Fences” (2016). He’s directed this one with such proficiency you regret the five-year gap.
The film is based on Dana Canedy’s best-selling 2008 memoir, “A Journal for Jordan: A Story of Love and Honor.” A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and editor when at The New York Times, Canedy is now a senior executive at the book publishing house Simon & Schuster. The film is earnest, if also a bit slick, though not so much as to keep it from being affecting. Expect to shed a tear, or two, at its conclusion.
Jordan (Jalon Christian) is the son of Canedy (Chanté Adams) and her fiancée, Charles Monroe King (Michael B. Jordan). King was an Army first sergeant. Before they could marry, he was killed in Iraq, in 2006. Canedy had given him a blank journal, specifically intended for fathers of sons, which he could keep for Jordan while overseas.
That’s a straightforward, if in no way simple situation. The emotional complexities subsume love, both paternal and romantic; duty; loss; patriotism; regret. The complexity is also narrative: “A Journal for Jordan” has elements of romance, domestic drama, war movie, even a bit of old-fashioned newspaper story. There’s a nifty Steadicam scene where a royally ticked-off Canedy goes in search of the editor and fellow reporter who have pulled a fast one on her.
To honor that complexity, the screenwriter, Virgil Williams (“Mudbound”), has fashioned a tricky structure, full of flashbacks, spanning the years from 1998 to 2018. Yet the narrative is neither confused nor confusing. That’s a real achievement, tribute both to Williams’s skill and Washington’s sure-handedness.
The couple meet cute by meeting military. Canedy is visiting her parents, in North Carolina, for Thanksgiving. Her father is a retired drill sergeant. King, once one of his soldiers, is at the house, hanging a picture. He painted it. His soldierly bearing and precise manner — he arrives 11 minutes early for their first date — conceals surprises. He always has a sketch book with him and loves the art of Monet and Seurat. King also can be surprisingly droll. What attracted him to the military? Canedy asks. “Discipline, travel, and I love my country, so I always wanted to serve. Plus, the camo brings out my eyes.”
“Journal” is Canedy’s story, but it’s Michael B. Jordan’s movie. Stalwart, quietly forceful, he seems positively . . . Denzelian. The downside of this is it underscores Adams’s limitations as Canedy. She comes across as sulky and superficial. It’s a movie truism that there are some faces the camera just loves. It’s no less the case, and even more mysterious, how some people have a natural gravity onscreen while others do not. Adams, at least here, does not. She does do justice to a line nearly as good as that camo one: “You don’t love me. You love your men. I’m just better looking.”
As noted, “Journal” has a moving ending. Also as noted, it has a tendency to slickness. Part of the power of the ending is that the slickness seems all gone. “Seems,” though, not “has”: An explanatory note in the closing credits reveals that the absence of slickness is instead the presence of slipperiness. The polite term is “dramatic license.” The impolite one is “cheat.” It would be unfair to the filmmakers to reveal specifics. It would be no less unfair to filmgoers to leave it unmentioned. The strange thing is that this bit of business wasn’t necessary. What preceded it was plenty effective already. Even worse than not trusting your audience is not trusting your material.
A JOURNAL FOR JORDAN
Directed by Denzel Washington. Written by Virgil Williams; based on the book by Dana Canedy. Starring Michael B. Jordan, Chanté Adams, Jalon Christian. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 131 minutes. PG-13 (sexual content, partial nudity, drug use, language)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.